Saturday, May 19, 2007


The title to this blog has nothing whatever to do with St. Paul or a Crosby-Hope Road flick of the 1940's. Instead, it is about my recent adventure in the Middle East.

I hope you noticed my absence from the blogosphere for the past several days. Given the rapid pace that Special Ed and Bush's pal Steve Harper are destroying their respective leaderships and governments, I just had to take a breather.

Well, if not a breather, at least a pleasant change. I have just returned from Damascus. Not Damascus, Saskatchewan. No Siree. I mean the real McCoy - Damascus, Syria - the ancient, mysterious, fascinating, oft-criticized pivotal Middle Eastern city of one of the most important Middle Eastern countries, in a region fraught with danger, intrigue and violence, none of which I observed. The pursuit of the elusive black liquid took me there. Unlike St. Paul, I did not have a conversion on the road. I remain what I was before I boarded the plane -I'll leave it to you to fill whatever you think is the appropriate expletive deleted that defines me.

The voyage to Damascus from Calgary is a long one. My colleagues and I stopped in London after an 8 and a half hour flight to shower and catch a few hours in the city via the very efficient and very fast train (it takes about 15 minutes) into Paddington Station from Heathrow. A few hours later we boarded a British Airways jet for the 6 and a half hour flight to Damascus via a short stop in Ankara. We arrived at our destination in the wee small hours of the morning, a calendar day and a half after our departure from home. There is a 9 hour time difference between Calgary and Damascus. It is not a short hop.

Syria in recent years has taken a pummelling in the western press. Much has been said about its repressive regime, its alleged harboring of terrorists, its jails and murky justice system, and so forth. That is not the side of the country that I observed in Damascus. Admittedly, the trip was short - about 6 days - and so there remains much for me to experience and learn about the place hopefully a next time.

Damascus is big. There are 4.5 million plus people, spread over a broad valley below Mount Qasioun, the site that Muslims believe was where Cain murdered Abel. The panoramic view of the city from Mount Qasioun is a dramatic one, and gives emphasis to the vastness and power of the metropolitan area. There are several restaurants near the top of the mountain from which diners can eat and drink while absorbing the dramatic view at the steep mountain's edge. Housing has crept up the mountain side over the years. It now includes even squatters who have built their crude, ramshackle cement block dwellings with million dollar views from precipitous angles to the valley and city below. At night, the view of the lights of the densely settled side of the mountain from the city is equally wondrous.

Damascus is old. It is so old that it is widely acknowledged to be the oldest continuously occupied city in the world. It has been inhabited as a human settlement since at least 8000 years BC. Some say, it goes back as far as 10,000 BC. Therefore, there is plenty of antiquity. Because my time was limited I barely scratched the surface of its many historical wonders. However, I did walk through parts of the old city with its warren of narrow lanes and interesting shops, restaurants and cramped ancient homes. I visited the famous enclosed Al-Hamidieh Market with its many wares and antiques, and sampled a generous helping of sherbet-like Arabic ice cream (bouzat haleeb). Nearby I entered the serene Omayyad Mosque which dates back to the 8th century. The Mosque contains the heads of John the Baptist and Hussein, son of Ali. The ornate Minaret of Jesus is located at the Mosque. It is said to be the place where Jesus will appear on Judgement Day.

Much of Damascus is modern. There are many chic neighborhoods, as befits a city with a prosperous and growing middle class. Construction standards are clearly not what they are in the west and some of the inferior workmanship is readily apparent. Nonetheless, there are some very impressive buildings. One of the most prominent is (what used to be until recently) Canada's own Four Seasons Hotel. It is a tall, imposing building of white stone of perhaps 25 or so stories attached to a large shopping area in the same style. It is well-located in the inner city business district and the best hotel in town.

As Arab cities go, Damascus is a liberal city. The vigorous nightlife came as a surprise to me. Outstanding restaurants abound, as well as a goodly number of well-frequented bars and discos. I was reminded that the current Baathist regime led by the Al-Assad family is a secular one. Islam is not the official religion of the state, quite unlike other Arab nations in the region. Christians, mostly Catholic, comprise about 10% of the population and live in relative harmony with the Muslim community, which is 75% Sunni, with the rest divided among the Alawi, Druze and Shia. Ethnically, 90% are Arab and 10% among other groups, the main ones being Kurds and Armenians.

The Al-Assad family are from the minority Alawi sect. Our hosts told us that Syria did not have a problem with the Jewish people, but rather the Zionist state. However, they looked forward to an ultimate negotiated and honorable settlement with Israel. Given that they were sophisticated and respected businessmen with significant commercial interests who have prospered during recent times of relative stability in their country, I had no trouble taking them at their word.

I had occasion to dine out at two great Arab restaurants in the old city - 'Oxygen' and 'Old City.' Both are part of a group of a hundred or so very old houses in old Damascus that have in recent years been converted to fashionable restaurants, the design of which gives full measure to the exotic Arabic style. Given that Damascans still live by the generous siesta in the afternoons, things get started late. Most people show up for dinner at 10 or later. Live entertainment with Arabic singers and musicians generally begins at 11. For the next several hours, guests stuff themselves with the best of nuts, pickles, pita bread, hummus, salads, grilled lamb and chicken . . . . and other equally delicious morsels, all tastefully spiced and excellent in every way. Wine and cocktails flow freely, all of which I ingested liberally, dare I say. Water pipes (hookahs, or hubbly bubblies) are always present, the scented tobacco smells from which seemed far less oppressive than what I remember of cigarette smoke back home in the old days.

We were hosted in an exemplary way by our hosts and future business colleagues. With them we happily sampled some of the night life into the wee small hours and visited officials of the Government, as well as Canada's Ambassador to Syria. During those moments when we did not talk business we talked openly about politics.

The current Baathist regime of the Al-Assad family began in 1970 as a result of a coup d'etat led by Hafez Al-Assad, upon whose death in 2000, was succeeded by his son Bashar. Syria's turbulent history is bloody and violent. Before the mid 7th century and the coming of the Muslims, the country had been ruled by Aramaeans, Babylonians, Greeks under Alexander the Great, Romans, and Egyptians - to name but a few. During this time it was sacked, occupied, destroyed, and conquered a multitude of times. With the coming of the Muslims the carnage continued, with tribal wars, and invasions by the Turks, Crusaders, the Egyptians under Saladin, and the Mongols. The Ottoman Turks occupied and governed the region and city for 400 years, ending only with their defeat in World War 1 in 1918. Arabs of the region expected independence to emerge from the War, after having fought with the Allies (remember Col. T.E. Lawrence of Arabia) in routing the Turks. They were to be disappointed. The French were given the mandate to govern and entered the country in 1920. They remained there until 1946. During the whole of the French occupation, the struggle for independence went on, with continued revolutionary and counter-revolutionary activities, bloodshed and violence. Syrian independence came at a terrible price of death and destruction.

For many years, it didn't go much better after independence. The country remained in a state of continual crisis with at least 11 coup d'etats between 1946 and 1966. On top of that were the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, 1967, and 1973, the civil war in Lebanon (just across the mountains from Damascus), the chest-pounding aggressive and authoritarian Sadam in Iraq to the south, Gulf War 1 (in which Syria was a member of the anti-Sadam coalition), Dubya's Gulf War 2 (which has resulted in as many as 2 million Iraqi refugees seeking a Syrian safe haven), and the Palistinian refugees from the creation of Israel, the occupation of the West bank and the troubles in Lebanon. The population of Syria is about 20 million, which number includes Palistinian refugees, but excludes the refugees from Iraq.

I noted that there were no tears shed for the departure of Sadam. Equally obvious was the scorn held for George W. Bush's muscular and one-sided Middle East policy, which in their minds has only served to further destabilize a region which was already in a delicate state, not to mention Syria's further alienation from the United States. Canada, because of its long-standing even handed approach to the regional issues (at least until now), earned high marks.

With its history it is small wonder then that, according to our hosts, order is uppermost in the minds of the people as well as the regime. Without order there is no peace, and without peace, there is no progress. It is for the pursuit of order, that the regime tolerates little opposition, and deals harshly with it's suspected opponents or potential opponents. Law enforcement is severe and quiet. There is virtually no crime in the city. And no terrorism. A highly sophisticated organization of internal security has so far been successful in rooting out potential disruptive elements. Armed military personnel are scattered liberally throughout the city. Given the country's record of coups and counter coups, it is little wonder that the system has evolved in this way, with order being considered of the utmost importance.

The delivery of good health care we are told, whether it be public or private, is problematic. People who have some money are likely to get serious health problems taken care of in Amman, Jordan, rather than Damascus. There are plenty of poor people.

The recent wars and instability in the region has contributed to a gigantic influx of refugees. Statistics indicate that 6 to 700,000 Palistinian refugees are in Syria with most being in the Damascus area. They have the same rights as Syrians and more than 70% are employed. Many own homes. The number of Iraqi refugees crossing the border has been as high as 30,000 to 40,000 per month with estimates of between one and two million having settled in Syria since the current war began. They have access to all government services. This new influx is creating pressures on available housing, public services, educational facilities and health care. It is a growing and immediate problem for the state. Whereas Egypt and Jordan have erected barriers to Iraqi refugees entering into their respective countries, Syria has kept an open border.

We ended our brief stay with a fantastic banquet at the Meridian Hotel. The food was excellent and abundant. The wine, first class. The conversation, stimulating. The music, haunting and exotic. And a belly-dancer that was to die for.

I can't wait to go back.

Monday, May 07, 2007


For the discerning and keen observer of the passing political parade it is high drama. For the partisan who believes his party has been kept from power for years, indeed generations, by an increasingly incompetent political monolith that cruel fate has smiled upon, it is payback time. For the Alberta Liberals and other opposition forces, it is unbelievable.

Is it political hara-kiri? Is this grotesque Vegreville Gothic scene really happening? Has this cowpoke Alberta Government slipped its own neck into the noose they had made for the rustlers - i.e. the people of the perceived rich and pampered Calgary? The answer is yes to all three questions. Special Ed and the revenge of the hayseeds from north eastern Alberta are wounded and bleeding. They don't quite realize it yet. The shock of taking power is masking the pain. But the pain is coming, and soon.

We've seen it before. Ernest Manning passing the mantle of leadership of the once formidable Social Credit Party in 1969 to nice, pleasant and borrrrrring Harry Strom, a salt-of-the-earth, God-fearing farmer from Southern Alberta. The wrong guy at the wrong time. Peter Lougheed (yes, that Peter Lougheed that the dumb and dumber Alberta neocon Tories of the Klein years vilified as being a liberal), led his party into a golden age. The farmer never had a chance. By 1971 Lougheed was Premier, and Strom was a footnote. The pundits and the Alberta Tories couldn't believe it.

We saw it also with the catastrophic succession of Kim Campbell to the Federal Tory Leadership after Muldoon in 1993. The frowning, babbling, lightweight pseudo-neocon who believed that a political campaign was no place to debate issues carried her Party to a two measly seats in the Federal Election. She was toast, and so was the venerable Federal Progressive Conservative Party toast. Neither would recover. Neither the pundits nor the Federal Grits could believe it - at least not the size of the Grit victory.

The Federal PC's were dead and for good. Those who believe that the present Federal Conservative Party is the old Federal PC Party better shake their collective heads. John Diefenbaker would be lynched by Bush's pal Steve and his pals like Stockwell Day, Jason Kenney, Vic Toews, and Jungle Jim Flaherty. Dalton Camp would be confined to Devil's Island. Joe Clark has gone into self imposed exile no doubt fearing for his physical safety.

This weekend's Provincial Tory Convention in Edmonton was a political disaster for Special Ed and his Government. First of all, they trash Joe Lougheed in his bid to become Party President. You see, young Joe, an attractive and ambitious young lawyer, has two strikes against him as far as the Stelmach boneheads are concerned. First of all, according to the present day 'Special Ed' Tories, his father was a liberal who spent beyond our means (translation: he maintained infrastructure and services, and never divided the electorate by playing one group off against another). Secondly, young Joe was from Calgary, and how many times do the Special Ed guys have to tell you that these days, Calgary is out. St. Albert must be in. Lougheed lost to a St. Albert party hack.

The Special Ed squad also chose to do nothing about massive rent increases. This is a problem throughout Alberta, but particularly so in Calgary where greedy landlords, including old Klein pals who bought the Holy Cross Hospital for a song, are sticking it to the little guy like there was no tomorrow. And with rent increases of 50% and upwards and $1000 per month or more, there is an increasing number of modest income tenants or hopeful home buyers who have decided that there is no tomorrow in Calgary. It may be in Regina, Saskatoon or Swift Current, but not in Calgary.

Special Ed spelled out his solution at the Convention. It is - get this - to sic the hirsute Ray 'King Kong' Danyluk, his Housing Minister, after the greedy landlords. Danyluk, who has the appearance of real muscle in the Tony Soprano sense of the term, has yet to offer any suggestions to resolve this crisis, even though it has been percolating for many months. Special Ed though gave us hope. He said that the solution is for King Kong Danyluk to get the Landlords in line by 'moral suasion and intimidation.' Eddie added, "He's (King Kong) a pretty big guy. Maybe people will listen to him." I kid you not!

The conventioneering Tories weren't finished with the venerable cowtown who gave the Province both the now non-person Lougheed and the clown Klein. Special Ed in his cumbersome, bland oratory, actually brought a thousand of his neanderthals to their feet - and that is no small achievement for Eddie - and a 40 second standing ovation. Why? Do you think it might have been the announcement of the construction of a hospital or some schools or the upgrading of highways? No. They cheered him for attacking Calgary's Mayor Bronconnier - known as 'Bronco', to his exponentially increasing numbers of supporters in his home town. What did Eddie do to get this awesome reaction? He belittled Bronco's argument that Special Ed's strings-attached offer of millions of bucks to the cowtown, most of which was for pet Provincial projects, would delay the westward extension of the LRT.

What Eddie and his rural army from Northeastern Alberta together with their arch-rightist pals fail to recognize, is that the Calgary problems are symptomatic of urban and rural problems in the whole Province. Calgary's problems are Edmonton's, Lethbridge's, Medicine Hat's, Grande Prairie's, Red Deer's, Fort McMurray's, Drumheller's, Hanna's, Pincher Creek's, Redwater's, Barrhead's and Peace River's. They are driven by a crying need for schools, hospitals, infrastructure, and some relief for tenants, affordable housing, and much else. All of this has been brought about by mindless neglect. Which continues and which is being recognized by Albertans in the four corners of the Province.

Kevin Taft is licking his chops. He's going to be Premier after the next election and you can say you heard it here first.

Saturday, May 05, 2007


Bush's pal Steve Harper is not doing well these days.

So long as Steve had a simplistic 5-point program and stuck to it, he did well. But when it came to multi-tasking he had trouble passing gas and blowing his nose at the same time. When it came to putting out fires he was all thumbs with both the hose and the extinguisher.

Harper's problems really began with his flip-flop on income trusts. During the election campaign, unlike the Grits who seemed to be lurking around the next corner to do them in, Stevie had promised to maintain them as an investment vehicle. Once in power however, he fell under the spell of the gurus at Finance, the Bank of Canada, and Bay Street. They convinced him to break the promise. And so, the sly and stealthful pal of Bush's, shamelessly changed his mind. Income Trusts, he announced, would be phased out. The handsome returns they delivered to their investors would be no more. Thusly, he broke his word to a key group of the traditional coalition of Conservative voters - retired people with savings, not to mention, the brokers and financial advisors who feed off of them, together with other business groups. They were all loyal, fair and foul weather Conservatives. Overnight, many became former loyal, fair and foul weather Conservatives.

The front end man picked by Stevie to do the verbalizing dirty work was an arrogant Ontario former ambulance chaser, Finance Minister James Flaherty. Flaherty's hauty demeanor while presiding as the chief executioner of the much beloved investment vehicle, did little but exacerbate Stevie's Government's first major PR disaster.

The next stop along Steve's road to perdition was his Budget. It took about 24 hours for the Canadian people to grasp the essence of it all - an obvious and giant bribe to the Province of Quebec.

The billions transferred over to Steve's pal Jean Charest never had a snowball's chance of passing the stink test. Charest was informed of Harper's largesse of several billion to La Belle Province to correct a mythical fiscal imbalance in Equalization payments near the end of a brutal provincial election campaign which was not going well. And so, in one of the most unsavoury and odious moves in Canadian political history, with the proceeds of his bribe, Charest offered a huge tax cut to Quebecers. He squeaked through with a narrow minority victory.

The Budget also earned the undying enmity of Tory Premier Danny Williams of Newfoundland, who came out swinging about what he saw as another broken Harper promise - the promise of not including resource revenues to calculate Equalization payments. Williams remains on the warpath, taking his rip-roaring attack on Steve's character and policies, on speechifying road trips elsewhere in Canada. Premier Calvert of Saskatchewan, notwithstanding that he is a mild gentleman as befits a man of the cloth, has also told anybody within earshot of what he thinks of the conniving Prime Minister. Canadians from across the country cursed the Prime Minister as another Quebec appeaser. Even Quebecers seemed embarassed by the Conservative generosity of other Canadians' money. His support there has dropped like a rock since.

Then comes Afghanistan. The hapless and feckless warrior, retired General and Minister of National Defence Gordon O'Connor, under constant fire in the House, changed his story about the treatment and monitoring of Canadian captured detainees in Afghanistan repeatedly. He was ably assisted in the confusion by Steve himself, together with the grey-matter challenged Liberal gift from the Conservatives that keeps on giving, Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day.

The cuckolded (probably not the most accurate term in hearkening to his treatment by the vamp Belinda, but delicious nonetheless) Foreign Affairs Minister Peter McKay also got into the act. His Department first lied about the existence of a report on conditions in Afghanistan. It then produced a heavily censored version. When an intrepid Globe and Mail reporter produced the original, Canadians discovered that the censored report left all of the good news in, and the bad news out - an odious coverup. Canadians already felt queasy about Afghanistan, there being no end in sight to our sacrifice of lives and money. Now they are left with the firm conviction that the Government does not know what it is doing there. The treatment of the detainees handed over by Canadian troops to the Afghani authorities who tortured them, sounded to them an awful lot like the evil-doers Bush, Cheney Rumsfeld, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanomo.

Next on the Agenda was the Global warming issue. This is the one promise that Bush's pal Steve Harper obviously did not want to break - the promise that he would go easier on industry than the Grits' Kyoto policy. The basis of Stevie's policy is the reduction of intensity levels of green house gas emissions, as opposed to an absolute reduction of emissions. A reduction of intensity levels will not necessarily reduce emissions. Canadians understand that in the case of the oilsands, the biggest greehouse gas belcher in the country, absolute emissions will increase regardless of intensity reductions because the production of oil from the oilsands is expected to triple in less than 10 years. The Canadian policy based on intensity reductions is - in the words of Al Gore, the guru of global warming - "a complete and total fraud."

To sell his flim-flam plan, Stevie sent into the battle, his doorman, John Baird - the chippy and burly, highly-partisan political hit man whose Frat boy demeanor reminds one of the anchorman on the college relay beer-drinking team. Yes, Baird was the designated hitter to take on the saintly Suzuki and the immensely popular Al Gore. The Frat boy never had a chance.

And finally, we have the plight of NHL star Shane Doan. Doan, from Halkirk, Alberta, is the highly effective and popular Captain of the Canadian National Team presently duking it out for the world hockey championship in Moscow. He had a dust-up with some NHL officials a couple of years ago, who accused him of making an anti-French slur during a heated hockey game. He denied it. There was an investigation, and he was cleared. But it wasn't enough to satisfy the politicians. Led by the Bloc, a hearing ensued last week before the Commons Official Languages Committee. All of the parties wanted in on this keystone kops act. By God, they were going to fall all over each other protecting our country from racial slurs in the hockey rink. Here, Steve had an opportunity of picking up some lost points. He could have and should have said, 'This is ridiculous. There's been an investigation and he's been cleared. Get off his case." He let Shane twist slowly in the wind until the debate petered out. Stevie just couldn't resist the further pandering to the nationalist vote in Quebec. He said nothing. And he lost more points. The whole Ottawa political scene became even more of a laughing stock than usual. Oh, yes, when it was all over and there were no further real or imaginary points to get, Bush's pal Steve Harper called Shane to congratulate him on a hat trick. Talk about trying to have your cake and eat it. Fortunately, the Canadian people saw it for the crass opportunism that it was.

Today Canadians received further information that the polls, already getting soft for Stevie, have taken an alarming anti-Conservative turn. An Ipsos Read poll released today shows the Conservatives with 35%, Liberals at 34%, NDP at 14%, the Bloc with 9% and Greens at 7%.

Most importantly, the Grits lead in Ontario 44% to 34%. And in Quebec, with the people obviously having more pride than Steve gives them credit for, the Grits are second to the Bloc and ahead of the Tories: The Bloc has 35%, the Grits 25% and the Conservatives 20%. In Atlantic Canada the Grits are ahead with 43% to 32% for the Conservatives. Only in the west, do the Conservatives lead the Grits: in British Columbia, 43% to 32%, in Alberta 66% to 20%, and in Saskatchewan, 46% to 25%.

If the election were held tomorrow, Stephane Dion and the Grits would win, because the overwhelming Conservative lead in Alberta does not translate into enough seats.

Bush's pal Steve Harper is in deep political trouble. What's worse, the Canadian people don't care much for him. Get ready for a Dion Government. You can say you heard it here first.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


It was revealed this week that Special Ed's government is paying close attention to the substance and style of the government of Bush's pal Steve Harper back in Ottawa.

You will recall that recently there was an application by the Globe and Mail under the Freedom of Information legislation for the production of a Foreign Affairs report on conditions in Afghanistan. The Minister of the Department is the infamously broken-hearted Peter McKay, who was unceremoniously but understandably dumped by the comely Belinda Stronach. McKay's Department first said there was no such report - which was a lie.

A further application to the Freedom of Information Commissioner, led to the production of a report that was heavily censored with large swaths of blacked-out lines. Fortunately, the Globe and Mail had a full and complete copy of the report which it had obtained from another source. Comparing the two, it was quickly noticed that the difference between the censored report and the complete report was that all of the bad news of the report was deleted in the censored report. Concerns over corruption, poppy production, the torture of detainees, and other depressing news had all been blacked out by Foreign Affairs. There were no security issues involved that would have justified the withholding of that information from Canadians. So it must be assumed that the only reason for the reluctance of McKay's Department to come clean was to keep under wraps and from the Canadian public, information which was thought by the Harper Government to put itself in a bad light.

Today, we find that Special Ed is doing the same thing in Alberta. A censored major energy report done by Special Ed's Government, was released to the public. Again, a full and complete copy of the report has been produced through other means. A comparison of the censored report and the complete report indicates that the difference is simply 2 missing pages in the censored report.

What harmful information was contained in the missing 2 pages? That 6 U.S. States besides Texas , are receiving much higher percentages from the sale of hydrocarbons than the Province of Alberta, and that Alberta could be losing as much as 16 billion a year in hydrocarbon revenues - that's what!

Special Ed and his 'back to the soil' government wanted to keep that information from Albertans. Why would he have done that? For pals in the oil industry who may have wanted to pony up $5000 for his intimacy sessions? To be relieved of having to deal with the Royalty issue in the near-term? And why doesn't he want to deal with that issue now? Why is it that he was afraid of that information getting into the hands of ordinary Albertans?

So, Eddie has been caught red-handed trying to keep Albertans in the dark.

But there is more trouble ahead. Special Ed is also in a continuing heated squabble with Mayor Bronconnier of Calgary, who is telling anybody who will listen that Special Ed's Budget did not carry out his 'no strings attached' promise of billions of dollars in cash to Calgary. Bronco says major projects that are urgently needed will have to be delayed as a result. He is not happy.
There is the continuing health care crisis, delayed school construction, and the lack of major infrastructure additions or improvements.

And his caucus is about to give him real trouble. Sources say that there is plenty of disgruntlement and divided opinion over issues such as nucleur power for the oilsands, fixed annual contributions to the Heritage Fund, and rent controls. And of course, there are the looming two by-elections, as well as polls that show his support is weakening, particularly in Calgary.

Not looking good for Special Ed, that's for sure!